Wondering at the way writers weave such wonderful, whimsical, or worrisome backstories of your favorite characters? Now you’ll get a chance to see a behind the scenes, at least at one writer’s style. It tis I! Hello. To keep this post under sixty pages, we’ll be narrowing our focus solely on the creation of backstories. When, where, how, and even if they should be revealed within a story is another topic all together.
Formulating backstories can appear to be quite the challenge. The limitless options, the family ties, and the region of their birth seem to spawn an endless sprawled out network of questions that beg to be worked on until 600 pages later you’ve mapped out one whole family tree, a new country, and ninety obscure talents—for one single character.
There is a better way, and it starts at the end, not the beginning. Much like a puzzle, it’s easier to start with the edges and work our way back towards the center.
For example, let’s say we have a charming rogue character, Carter, and he’s a thief that steals from cruel aristocrats in medieval fantasy setting. We can assume he’s agile, skilled at picking locks and pockets, and at sneaking around because that’s his job. Great. We have now made the stereotypical rogue character that can be found in one trillion books. Go us.
These are those “edges” I mentioned before. I’ve decided he’s going to be my main character so we need to set it apart from the masses of other rogues crowding us. Let’s make things harder on Carter, shall we?
Hush, voice in my head.
I want his right hand, his lockpicking hand, to have tribal tattoos that glow light-blue when he uses it for thievery. Why do I want that? Cause it looks cool, but that’s not enough of a good reason. We’ll have to explain that somehow.
Next, we’re going to give him an eyepatch, except that both his eyes work just fine. And lastly, I like the idea of him ending each theft with a line from a famous poem either by leaving them written on parchment or saying them as he makes his escape. They’re always from some anti-establishment slant against the government in his world.
The questions are mounting!
Indeed, voice, they are.
Due to his job, we know why he is able to climb buildings, open doors, and slink away unseen. His knowledge of obscure, and let’s say, banned poetry is not something every rogue needs to know.
So where did Carter learn these banned poems?
Why does his hand glow when he picks locks?
What’s up with the eyepatch?
All these traits were picked at random, or because as I envisioned the character I thought they’d make him more interesting, but now it’s time for us to fill in the blanks.
He could’ve stolen a book of banned poems from an aristocrat’s safe, and that’s how he knows them, but we can do better than that. Perhaps earlier in his career he was imprisoned with the very poet who wrote them. The poet’s views helped shaped Carter’s ideas of freedom, but sadly the poet was executed for his refusal to stop writing them. Now Carter carries on his legacy.
A glowing hand could be a lot of things, but I decided it only glows during thievery. What if through some magic a retired master thief transferred his talent to Carter? Of course, there must’ve been a price.
Yet another question to answer!?
We’ll leave that a mystery, even to ourselves, for now.
There are stories of pirates wearing eye patches in order to keep an eye adjusted to the darkness when shifting from fighting in the sunlight to battling below deck. Carter could use this tactic to give him a visual advantage on robberies when moving from bright rooms to dim ones, but it also means that he could’ve served on ship at some point. This would also explain any fancy knots he knows.
Now let’s boil down what we’ve done and why. We’ve made a character as they’ll appear in our story, and we added a few features to make them stand out. This forced us to figure out how or why these traits came to be. It narrows our options and makes the overwhelming task of the backstory channeled into, at least for me, a game. Notice that I still left parts of the backstory unanswered or at least vague. This leaves me further wiggle room to embellish later on if the character becomes a larger part of my story.
But what’s the purpose of having a backstory for characters anyways, you never did answer that one did you!
I’m getting to it! Backstories have many functions.
They explain how a character might have skills the audience wouldn’t assume they do. A city slicker that knows how to hunt might’ve gone hunting with his hermit uncle as a kid. Nothing pulls the audience out of the immersion of a story than the question, “Well how would they know how to do that?”
Backstories explain why a character might have a unique reaction to a situation. A character might cry at the sound of a particular song because their lover was murdered as it played on the radio. To everyone else it’s a happy melody.
They also help a writer maintain consistency for their characters actions and attitudes. Perhaps a character was saved by a band of pirates and always sticks up for them when others talk badly about those dastardly scallywags.
And finally, a simple rule I go by is, “Does this make sense?” For example, I wanted to have a character wield a katana in a cyberpunk world filled with machine guns. If the only reason she wields it is because I think swords are cool, that’s just not enough. In a world where bullets win out over really long knives I needed a better reason than wicked awesome sword right!? This led to the creation of her backstory as a mob enforcer. Anyone that can’t make their payments winds up getting some expensive piece of cyberware cut off by a single slice of her razor-sharp blade. Now she’s got a backstory and a plausible reason for wielding it, and I get to have a cool katana in my story. I see that as a Win Win.
In short, make the character you want, one that fills the role for your story, and work your way backwards so it all makes sense.
Kaz Kirkpatrick is the author of the dark fantasy short stories Repelzul and Unraveling which both appear in the anthology Happy Days Sweetheart (A Murder of Storytellers). Kaz has been crafting stories and scenes for drama events for the better part of fifteen years. He’s always been interested in creating compelling characters, inventive scenarios, and imaginative settings in a variety of genres. Now he’s using that experience to transfer his multitude of stories to print.